When we talk about something that happened in the past we sometimes want to refer back to something that happened before that time. We can use the past perfect tense (had + past participle) to do this.
Look at these two sentences.
- John left the house at 7:30 yesterday morning.
- Mary rang John’s doorbell at 8:15 yesterday.
Both actions happened in the past so we use the past simple tense. But look at how we can combine the sentences.
- Mary rang John’s doorbell at 8:15 yesterday but John had already left the house.
We use the past perfect (had left) because the action happened before another action in the past (Mary rang the doorbell.)
Look at some more examples of the past perfect.
- When Mrs Brown opened the washing machine she realised she had washed someone else's laundry.
- I got a letter from Jim last week. We’d been at school together but we’d lost touch with each other.
The past perfect is used because they were at school before he received the letter. It refers to an earlier past.
Look at these 2 sentences.
- James had cooked breakfast when we got up.
- James cooked breakfast when we got up.
In the first sentence, the past perfect tells us that James cooked breakfast before we got up. In the second sentence, first we got up and then James cooked breakfast.
Past perfect continuous
The past perfect can also be used in the continuous.
- I realised I had been working too hard so I decided to have a holiday.
- By the time Jane arrived we had been waiting for 3 hours.
The most common mistake with the past perfect is to overuse it or to use it simply because we are talking about a time in the distant past.
For example we would not say
The Romans had spoken Latin
The Romans spoke Latin
because it simply describes a past event, and not an event before and relevant to another past event.
Remember that we only use the past perfect when we want to refer to a past that is earlier than another time in the narrative.